It won’t be pretty, but Capitals can still contend

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Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan admitted that his team is experiencing a championship “hangover” without the benefits of a Stanley Cup, which sounds even worse than a headache without the party.

And, no doubt about it, this last swing for the fences was the mightiest they could muster.

MORE: MacLellan on the championship hangover without the championship

Still, it’s easy to linger on this letdown and forget that sports can be pretty strange. Sometimes a big run happens well after people expect it.

Who, in their right mind, expected Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to shock LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2011? Hockey has plenty of examples of surprise runs, including the Predators going from the 16th-ranked playoff team to two wins from a title.

No doubt about it, the Capitals will feel the sting in losing Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, and maybe a little confidence in Barry Trotz.

Even so, the very Pittsburgh Penguins team that torments them can also be a beacon of hope: you don’t need a perfect regular season to win it all.

The Capitals are no longer in a position to run away with the Presidents’ Trophy each year. Instead, they just need to make the best of things like … you know, just about every salary-cap era contender.

An aging core … but not an old core

Look, the most important members of this team no longer qualify as spring chickens. Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair stands as a reminder of our mortality, really.

via Getty Images

Rather than being a reason for panic, the ages of their most important players emphasize the notion that they need to keep hammering away:

Andre Burakovsky: 22
Evgeny Kuznetsov: 25
John Carlson: 27
Braden Holtby: 27
Nicklas Backstrom: 29
Matt Niskanen: 30
T.J. Oshie: 30
Alex Ovechkin: 31

Sure, some of those important contributors might slip, but that’s still a core group most franchises would envy. They still have an elite goalie, dangerous scorers, two strong centers, an experienced head coach, and some capable defensemen.

Promotions?

One key development might be the rise (or fall?) of Jakub Vrana.

The 21-year-old has enjoyed solid – though not spectacular – success in the AHL, and also got his feet wet at the NHL level. He didn’t go wild for Washington, but with that first-round pedigree (13th pick in 2014) and solid numbers in Hershey, there’s some reason to believe that he could at least be a meaningful contributor.

Vrana could ease the sting of losing one of those key forwards.

In defending keeping Brooks Orpik around, MacLellan points to a similar possibility among Washington’s defensive prospects:

Diving into the bargain bin

Here’s some advice for MacLellan: as painful as times are now, don’t go on vacation just yet. The Capitals should take advantage of a free agent market that is low on stars but potentially high on value.

The Capitals could go with veteran forwards such as Jaromir Jagr,* Thomas Vanek, or Jiri Hudler. All three of those guys aren’t that far removed from success.

They can also take on some interesting “reclamation projects.” Nail Yakupov and Brandon Pirri are just a couple of players who could be this year’s answer to Sam Gagner.

And, yes, the pickings are slimmer on the blueline, but Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles could provide solid depth help.

MacLellan seems aware that these options are out there, at least broadly speaking.


Is this situation perfect? No, not really.

Still, the Capitals have suffered despite seemingly boasting championship rosters on paper. Maybe they can win ugly after all these painful times losing with the prettiest roster?

* – Yes, he had a bad stay in Washington, but that was approximately a billion years ago.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.